I am on the train to Ipswich for the last home match of the season at Portman Road. My fellow passengers are mostly male. Opposite me is a man who looks like he’s about eighty, he has thin blue lips and a white moustache, but it’s nature that’s done that to him, he hasn’t dressed up for the football, he’s not regretting that he didn’t have any face paints. Another man, probably in his seventies shares the hamster like facial features of Kenny Jacket, whilst another has to ask people to excuse him as he passes down the train to and from the lavatory because of his rotund figure; he wears a T-shirt that says “Weekend Offender”, he is probably a Sheffield Wednesday supporter; we know that northerners drink too much beer and are therefore obese. His northern accent is the clincher.
At Ipswich station there are two policemen in the foyer and three over the road outside the Station Hotel and another two guarding the path down to the car park beyond the bridge over the river. Are they expecting trouble or are they just there to tell people the time? The sun is shining warmly on this bright spring day and there aren’t many people about, although several of the ones that are about are wearing football shirts. Portman Road is a tad busier than usual for half past one on a match day as people stand about waiting for the turnstiles to open. A man wrestles wide-eyed and open-mouthed with a tomato sauce smeared sausage in a bun, which looks like it could slither from his grasp at any moment. The burger concessions, programme dealer and souvenir seller aren’t busy and a car park attendant sits down on the job. Up round the bend in St Jude’s Tavern the usual football Saturday clientele are there, mostly world weary , white haired and balding, one of them shouts “McCarthy Out” as he gets up to go. After two pints of very tasty Earl Soham Victoria Bitter (£3.20 a pint) and a chat with a friend called Mick which covers football, politics, street-drinkers and getting old, I get up and go too. The season finale beckons like a bin bag that must be put out for the morning refuse collection.
In Portman Road a late arriving coach disgorges Wednesdayites onto the pavement as two policeman look on; I like to think they have individually welcomed everyone on that bus to Ipswich and wished them a pleasant stay. Northern voices chant about going somewhere and not knowing or caring how they are going to get there; the somewhere it transpires is the Premier League. They should be careful what they wish for. Three Star Wars storm troopers walk past.
Inside the ground the atmosphere builds amongst the Sheffielders who are in high spirits anticipating clinching a place in the promotion play-offs; there are 2,003 of them in a reported crowd of 19,000. A mooted boycott of the match by Town fans who don’t like Mick McCarthy doesn’t seem to have happened; or not so as anyone would notice. The Ipswich crowd look on impassively. It’s the fag end of the season, the empty husk that once contained hopes and dreams now dashed on the terraces like the guts and brains of a piece of roadkill. There should be a minute’s silence in its memory or seeing as it’s football where the crowd aren’t trusted to shut-up, a minute’s applause; but that would smack of irony which is a bit sophisticated for us football fans.
The match begins. Sheffield Wednesday are wearing black shirts and day-glo orange shorts which look like they would be useful in case of floodlight failure or to council highway workers in warm weather. The pitch is well watered and some players slip over. After eight minutes in an apparently unrelated incident two men with buckets and mops walk along the front of the stand towards a sign that says Exit & Toilets. Sheffield press the Ipswich goal in the manner of the wolf in the story of the the Three Little Pigs and cause few problems for the Ipswich defence and fewer for goalkeeper Bartosz Bialkowski. Ipswich in turn cause even fewer problems for the Wednesday defence and goalkeeper, but aren’t playing too badly in the context of the season as a whole. A beach ball that looks like an oversized football almost makes it onto the pitch, but a steward takes up the challenge of chasing it along the pitchside and then having caught it squeezing it between himself and the perimeter wall to deflate it. It takes 25 minutes for the Ipswich drums in the Sir Bobby Robson Stand to strike up, but they could only have been passing through as they soon stop and are not heard again. The Wednesday fans are enjoying themselves indulging in some schadenfreude as to Joy Division’s tune they sing “Leeds, Leeds are falling apart, again”. At about twenty to four Ipswich’s Cole Skuse, who will be played by George Clooney in the film of the season, is cautioned for some arm grabbing by referee Mr Coote whose surname makes up a fine threesome with his two lugubrious sounding assistants Mr Lugg and Mr Blunden.
Half-time arrives as it always does and I scan the programme (£3.00) in which Chief Executive Ian Milne amusingly dismisses the season in his opening paragraph by saying “I am not going to repeat the reasons or mitigating circumstances for a disappointing season”. Oh go on ‘Milney’, please do. Elsewhere good luck is wished to the club’s PR manager Jade Cole, who is departing Portman Road after ten years. From her picture she looks like she must have been about twelve when she got the job. Did she jump or was she pushed? She didn’t do much of a job with that 500% season ticket price rise for the Under 11’s or the overnight change in the qualifying age for concessions from 60 to 65 did she? But with policies like that may be her position had become untenable? Doing PR for President Assad might be easier.
The second-half begins with renewed vigour from Sheffield Wednesday who barely let Ipswich have the ball at all now. On their right, number 33,the compact Ross Wallace ‘prods and probes’ and from the far end of the pitch he looks like a poor man’s Mathieu Valbuena, the Olympique Lyon player, about whom incidentally, French TV & Radio journo Guy Carlier has written a book called “Qui veut tuer Mathieu Valbuena” (Who wants to kill Mathieu Valbuena”). Wallace hits a post with a shot which deceives Bartosz Bialkowski into thinking he can reach it.
From an Ipswich perspective the second half is absolutely awful, they do nothing of any note or which could be deemed entertaining and are dominated by the council road men from South Yorkshire. Is a lack of spending in the transfer market by owner Marcus Evans to blame? Sheffield Wednesday meanwhile clearly have money to burn as two men with holdalls containing wet sponges, rather than just the usual one run on to the pitch to treat Ross Wallace when he is down injured. There are seventeen minutes left and a muffled “Come On Ipswich” is heard, but it is only fleeting and I ask myself if it was real or just a ghostly memory of better days carried up the steps and across the seats on the cold breeze blowing down Portman Road from the shade behind the Cobbold Stand.
This looks like it is going to be a goalless draw, but then with thirteen minutes to go Sheffield Wednesday number five, Kieran Lee deftly flicks the ball into the Ipswich goal from close range to make the assembled northerners very happy and make the Ipswich public probably do nothing more than roll their eyes, if they react at all. To the tune of ‘Knees Up Mother Brown’ the Sheffield Wednesday fans sing “ We are Wednesday, We are Wednesday, Carlos Is our King”, a song first heard on the streets of Madrid in 1975 with the accession to the Spanish throne of Juan Carlos the first in the wake of the Franco regime. It won’t be a goalless draw after all I muse, it will probably be a 1-0 win to the away team, and so it proves.
Between that goal and the final whistle I ponder whether the advert for Green King IPA beer on one landing on the stairs in the Sir Alf Ramsey Stand and the instruction that alcoholic drinks are not allowed in view of the pitch on the next is symbolic of the sense of promise followed by disappointment that prevails at Portman Road. Just to compound that, as the match ends and as the half-hearted Suffolk boos are booed the stadium announcer tells us that the Town players will come back out from the dressing room to do an end of season lap of honour around the ground, but then adds that of course it is an offence punishable by death for supporters to enter onto the pitch. Thinking back, he may not have mentioned punishment by death, but nevertheless it’s as if those who run Ipswich Town can’t just concentrate on the positive things, they have to put you in your place as well; miserable bastards, sucking the life and the love from the game.
Unsurprisingly, I don’t wait for that lap of dis-honour and am rewarded by getting the 5.00pm train from which I stare out of the window and watch Ipswich receding into the distance, forgetting a forgettable season and remembering a not-that-faraway place where it is permitted to consume alcohol in view of the pitch, but drunks probably plot to murder Mathieu Valbuena.